Most unusual: The parking lot was already lined with cars when we pulled in. Inside the church office, my desktop was almost clear.
I made photocopies of various last-minute instruction lists and reminders, and posted them in conspicuous places, the way you might for your first overnight babysitter.
When I attempted to enter the fellowship hall, my way was barred. “You’re not allowed in.” They didn’t want me to see the cake for my farewell reception.
When I entered the sanctuary, I was greeted by a few faces I hadn’t seen in some time. “We wanted to say Goodbye,” they said. My heart was warmed by their presence. I laid my sermon in it’s spot on the pulpit, resisting the thought: “for the last time.”
I draped my black pulpit robe over my arm, debated whether or not to wear it. The temperature in the sanctuary would hover around 72, and I always get so warm when I preach. But I wanted to wear my robe because it makes my role official, and I wanted to wear my red stole because it was Pentecost, and because the red stole once belonged to my friend Karen Blomberg, and I wanted to feel her presence over me, as one of the saints who has gone ahead. In the end, I decided to leave the robe off while I preached, and to put it on before the sacrament.
While I thought this through, the tone chimes were practicing their Introit, so the sanctuary was full of tinkling sounds and people counting aloud, under their breath. When they finished, the choir ran through their anthem, Guide My Feet. The choir director, who once was a bit intimidated by her role, was in full command of the situation. While they sang, I changed the hymn numbers in their wooden slots, and did not let myself think: for the last time.
Then I had to sit in my red throne chair and look at the stained glass window of Jesus until I calmed down. An old friend entered, someone who had been estranged from the congregation, and I went down the aisle to give her a hug. Other church members got up to do the same. I blinked back tears, and took my throne chair again. Looked at Jesus again.
The sanctuary filled, and I tilted my head to look at people in both balconies. A woman I didn’t recognize was in the middle of a pew, and I couldn’t figure out if she belonged to the people on either side of her or not. I did the announcements as the last few people entered. The Tone Chimes played Great Is Thy Faithfulness without flaw. The Call to Worship was from Joel: “God will pour out the Spirit on all flesh, and our sons and our daughters shall prophesy. Our old ones shall dream dreams and our young ones shall see visions.” Then a Pentecost hymn: Holy Spirit, Wind and Flame, move within our mortal frame.
We confessed our sins together and I pronounced the Assurance of Pardon. Did not let myself think: for the last time. Then a church member sang a solo in Spanish, Jesus Es Mi Rey Soberano, which is a Christ the King hymn, a lovely lilting number.
We read a Psalm responsively, which is one of my favorite traditions in this congregation: that moment where we page through the Bibles together and lift up our voices from the Word of God. I never skip verses the way the lectionary does, so we read the gnarly ones too, so we said “Let sinners be consumed from the earth.”
Then a teenaged boy read 1 Corinthians 12, the great passage on the Church as the Body of Christ. Our gospel was a snippet from John’s gospel, a tiny passage, really, just a few verses, but oh, they are the climax of the whole gospel: the resurrected Jesus sends the Spirit on his disciples by breathing on them. We didn’t hear this read, but instead watched it on video, from “The Gospel of John.”
At Time with Children, I sat on the step and the children and I batted around a red balloon printed with the words Holy Spirit which was a leftover from last Sunday’s worship service. We talked about Pentecost a little and that I was leaving. I had baptized many of those children and I didn’t let myself think: But I will never confirm them.
As the children left, we sang: Come as the dove and spread Your wings, the wings of peaceful love: And let the church on earth become blest as the church above.
Then I preached a sermon titled Breath & Body. I stuck closer to my manuscript than usual, but couldn’t follow it exactly, had to let words I hadn’t anticipated come flowing out of my mouth as I looked at the faces of my people and was seized by that irrepressible desire to communicate something I hadn’t known I needed to say until I saw them there. I spoke about the power of the Spirit, the power to forgive sin, to shed guilt, to let go of the things that hold us down. I’m used to it now, the way something like that grabs me, but it’s still disconcerting and oh, I wrestle with wanting to weigh those words even as they come from my mouth. Then I looked down at the manuscript and kept preaching, about the two texts from John and First Corinthians. I talked about the church’s past, and it’s future. I talked about my own future in ministry. I felt I owed them a word of explanation — why do I need to leave, what is it I aim to write? So I told them in two sentences, including a joke, and they laughed because they are good that way, good at laughing when they should. And I also told them the hard truth about what I intend to write, because it will be a hard task, this writing. But if God tells you to do something, then you must. That part, I am sure about.
I ended the sermon by telling them “what I would suggest you do if I were here” and when I got to the third thing, I said, “You know what this is,” and they chorused out the response: “Tear down the manse.” Obviously, I have communicated that part of my vision for them!
We took up the collection afterwards, and as usual I stood up front with the elders facing me, the offering bags in their hands. Those elders are both choir members and they harmonize on the Doxology. I almost began to cry then, but the thing that saved me was joining in the singing, a little too loud.
Then it was time to preside over communion, to say the words of welcome, to lead the great prayer, The Lord be with you, and to hear them respond, And also with you. To pronounce the Words of Institution and lift the bread and break it. I tore it into chunks on the plate because I like the feel of it in my hands and I was greedy to tear it this last time. Don’t think the last time.
An elder stood beside me at the table, an elder I baptized a few years ago, an elder who had never been to church before he came to this one. He had missed the email that I would like him to serve communion this day, and he was wearing a Sesame Street T-shirt, but I said it didn’t matter, he should still serve beside me. He held the bread while I held the common cup. The people came forward while everyone sang. I served them by name, and I didn’t have trouble until the end, when I’d used up my quota of names. It was the last row and I looked at those dear faces and names escaped me for a moment of panic. Like a dust mote I spied just outside my line of vision, I glimpsed them and got them on my tongue in time.
I got one name wrong, one of the teenagers. I have missed his name before, far too many times — it got laid down in my brain wrong from the get-go — and after he took the sacrament I grabbed his sleeve and said he must absolve me for sinning against him these too-many times.
When everyone was served, we finished singing the final song: Lord, your summons echoes true when you but call my name. Let me turn and follow you and never be the same.
Then we did something I’ve never done before: The Ritual of Saying Farewell. Our Clerk of Session represented the congregation, and our Associate Presbyter represented the presbytery. We prayed, responsively, and my portion prayed for mercy, “for work begun but not completed, for expectations not met, for wounds not healed, for gifts not shared, for promises not kept.” Then the Clerk’s portion prayed thankfulness for the reverse. Then the presbytery rep pronounced the dissolution: Do you, the members and friends of PPC release Ruth from service as your pastor?”
Then, because I had wished it, I knelt and everyone gathered around me, filling the aisle and connecting together throughout the church like an undulating conga line, to lay their hands on me and bless me.
After I was back on my feet, the choir ended with their anthem, which had everyone on their feet, and I pronounced my final benediction. Yes, for the last time.
I shook hands at the door, and there were lots of hugs. One couple is leaving the church because of the denomination’s decision to open the way for gays to be ordained. My association with this couple has been exceedingly civil and pleasant, and I am sorry to see them go, but they must do what they must do. I was grateful to be able to shake their hands one last time and say, “Peace” and “God bless you.”
As the teenager came out — the one I called by the wrong name — he shook my hand and said, “I forgive you.” And so we are surrounded by peace.
Then we went to eat cake, but oh! They surprised me with so much more. The hall was complete with cloth tablecloths and flower arrangements and a lunch from Famous Daves. It was the first and only catered meal I have eaten in that fellowship hall so I felt very loved. I circulated among the tables like a bride at a wedding, and was that full of gratitude that each one was there.
There was an enormous cake decorated in red, and after we’d cut the cake, they presented me with gifts. The gifts were perfectly chosen. Perfectly. They gave me a gorgeous memory book filled with pictures and notes from the members of the congregation, all beautifully displayed. Each page is a work of art. I choke up when I touch it. The other gift was a certificate to spend a week at Holy Cross Abbey, the place I go to be in silence and to write. So they are supporting my new ministry, this ministry of word committed to paper. They had a gift for my husband too, a pair of trekking poles, which are much appreciated.
Then people got up and said lovely things about my time among them. I can’t repeat them here, they weren’t my words to share, but they were full of grace. What a decade we had! What changes have happened! My daughters each spoke, which surprised and touched me. I had the opportunity to say something, but had nothing left to say. Oh, there was much I could have said, but I had used up my allotment of words for the day. So instead I asked if we could sing the Doxology again.
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”